Searching for Lynx
Spain is synonymous with sunshine, siestas and delicious food, but it is also home to an amazing variety of wildlife, unique Iberian wildlife at that. Evolved to be distinctly different from its eurasian common ancestors, examples include the Iberian wolf, Iberian imperial eagle and of course the Iberian lynx.
The Iberian Lynx became a headline in the early 2000s after a census discovered there were less than 100 individuals remaining and that this species was critically endangered, unfortunately gaining the label 'rarest cat in the world'. But quick action by dedicated conservationists has seen the fortunes of this species take a dramatic up-turn.
The location is the Sierra de Andujar, north of Seville, the ground is grey and has an arid feel to it. Cool crisp mornings constantly catch you off guard. Song birds fill the bushes and rabbits dive in and out of view, seemingly everywhere, as you scan the ground. Dusty roads make for a web across the Sierra de Andujar as the undulating hillsides keep concealing and then abruptly revealing stunning vallery views.
January is regarded as the best month to come to the national park for the possibility of seeing an Iberian lynx. For me it's a holiday and a chance to explore a new place, so I'm happy to be there regardless of what I see. It's cold, much colder than the UK, but the fresh air is revitalising and the natural beauty invigorating.
Cars are parked seemingly in the middle of no where at certain locations as onlookers flank the dirt roads, wrapped up to keep the cold at bay, usually with binoculars in hand. The reason for this is much of the land is privately owned and used for trophy hunting. As a result there are huge numbers of deer and other grazing animals which explains the sparse shrubbery on some of the hunting estates.
An unlikely sanctuary
These hunting estates, though once a problem for the lynx have turned into one of the more unlikely sanctuaries, as through conservation communication, the perils facing the Iberian lynx were made clear and now, with full protection, the lynx are as safe here as they are anywhere else. The bonus being that the land is all private and off limits.
Although this private land limits some opportunities for ecotourism in the region, tourist numbers seem to be on the rise as the fame of this illusive cat continues to grow.
During my time there we had snow, which has only happened a handful of times over the past few decades. So cold even the donkey emphasising the cold conditions, particularly by how pissed off this donkey was at the whole situation. It made for quite an incongruous scene as the Spanish environment was briefly invaded by thousands of descending white dots which disappeared on impact.
"So cold, even the donkey was pissed"
Despite the cold weather, January is the best time to come with the view to see a lynx, as January is when mating takes place. The lynx patrol their rigid territories, as males pick up cues as to whether females in this region are coming into season. Though usually nocturnal, during this period they nonchalantly patrol during the day, unperturbed by the dozens of eyes peeping at them through binoculars, scopes and cameras. Despite being an illusive, ambush predator, this actually reveals one of the big issues with the Iberian lynx, their lack of fear towards man induced issues, most notably roads.
In 2014 alone 22 animals died as a result of car accidents. A shocking statistic when you think that back in 2002 that would have been at least 20% of the population. There are signs warning of lynx throughout the area, but this population damaging problem isn't going to resolve itself anytime soon. Infact as their population continues to increase they will spread out of these 'safe havens' into less suitable habitats.
From afar we saw movement, distantly even through binoculars, but the shape was unmistakable and it grew steadily larger and larger in my binoculars as a lynx plodded on an invisible path through the undergrowth. Not oblivious but rather unconcerned by the gorping humans excitedly staring down at it from a favourable roadside above.
Once it paused. Take your binoculars off it for a moment and it was darn hard to find again; such is the level of their camouflage in this environment. This is understandable though as the primary food source for Iberian lynx is rabbits, lots and lots of rabbits. Fast as it is, it still needs to get as close as possible to increase its hunting success rate.
At 10-13kg, 80-100cm in length and around 45cm tall when fully grown, these lynx are half the weight of their eurasian cousins, this is understandable as the Iberian variant has grown almost entirely dependent on rabbits, so much so that diseases affecting rabbit populations have a significant secondary impact on the Iberian lynx.
A conservationist from Iberlince compares my photograph to a database to try and identify our individual.
Iberlince was set up to conserve the Iberian lynx, from changing community mindsets in the 1990s, to gaining EU Life Project funding to implement conservation projects, including a successful reintroduction programme. These projects won the 'Best of the Best' project award from the EU in 2012.
Apart from hunting estates there are farms and manmade dams in the area, the later are very important for the local population as the hot summer months draw on.
Signs of lynx are obvious around these manmade areas too, as lynx continue to patrol. They have very rigid territories, on average 600ha, so the population has to spread outwards to accommodate growth. This is an issue as the lynx will not breed until they have a territory of their own, with females generally able to breed from two years old but generally don't start till they're older. This dispersal is when they are most vulnerable to external threats, including cars, particularly as the dispersing individuals are usually young.
Spot the tufts
On our last morning in the region we all set off satisfied, we had seen a lynx, something I didn't seriously consider actually happening but it did! Merce Coco Perez, our guide from Villa Matilda took us to a location away from the main viewpoint and we soaked in the calm morning. All of a sudden binoculars in the distance were looking this way, and as we peered into the valley a lynx was marching up it, at a 45 degree angle to our location. The individual just kept coming, closer and closer, passing by within 20 meters, pausing for a moment at a scent and then moving onwards as quickly as it had appeared it was gone, like a ghost into the vegetation.
To see what was once the 'rarest cat in the world' was an incredible privilege; to take in its character and the moment was something that I won't forget. It is a testament to the huge efforts of everyone who helped change the bleak future of the Iberian lynx into a conservation showcase. Though by no means finished, the recovery of this species is something to be applauded.
Returning to Seville, against a marvellous sunset, caped off a very special trip; one I didn't expect to take anything from save for travelling and meeting new people, instead my relaxed search for the lynx proved a resounding success. I got lucky!
If you are interested in trying to see the lynx then please visit Untravelled Paths, the company I travelled with - see link to trip details here. I was a regular paying customer, this is not a promotion. I just believe in the trips this company runs and the fantastic people who work for them. In particular the brilliant Marius Ghisoiu who I couldn't recommend enough!
My primary source of information for this article was the official website of Iberlince which can be found here.